Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey is the leading candidate to win the 2023-24 Most Improved Player Award. After making his first All-Star team, ascending into the second option behind Joel Embiid, and taking over as the lead option for months during Embiid's absence, Maxey has had a sensational season.

The expectation was that Maxey would take a leap forward after three years of improvements and James Harden leaving the lead ball-handler role behind as he headed west. But Maxey's body of work in the 2023-24 season has left even his biggest supporters stunned.

All the sportsbooks have Maxey in the lead for the MIP award as the regular season comes to a close. Given that he was named an All-Star and made substantial improvements in key categories, it makes total sense that he’s a runaway favorite.

Tyrese Maxey's case for the Most Improved Player Award

Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey (0) celebrates a three-point shot against the Miami Heat during the first half at Kaseya Center.
© Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, Tyrese Maxey entered the season as one of the most popular picks to be named the Most Improved Player. But the fact that he not only lived up to those expectations but blew right past them is why he’s an extremely deserving candidate.

Maxey wasn’t a major name in All-Star voting last season and made his first one this season. His improvements in the box score — his career-highs in points, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, field goals, three-pointers, and free throws per game — are impressive but are also partially the result of playing four more minutes per game. Yet even when evening out his stats to per 100 possessions or per 36 minutes, there are noticeable improvements in key categories.

Maxey isn’t just doing more with a bigger role, he's doing it better than he used to. His finishes at the rim have matured into more complex, difficult moves that make him harder to stop. His playmaking feel and ball-handling is much improved. Despite taking more on-ball responsibilities, he became less turnover-prone. There are more moments where his defense is legitimately game-changing.

In just about every facet of the game and as a leader of the 76ers, Maxey's impact has been felt more.

This season saw Maxey record his first 50-point game — which he accomplished thrice in total — and reach new single-game highs in assists and rebounds. The only other players with three 50-point games this season are Embiid and Devin Booker. After just one double-double in three prior seasons, he tallied nine this season. He ranks in the top 15 leaguewide in points per game. While his efficiency understandably took a dip in a bigger role, he remained a very efficient scorer.

No. 0 has been one of the best second options in the entire league, complementing No. 21 perfectly. The fact that the 76ers posted a bad record during Embiid's prolonged absence shouldn’t be held too much against Maxey, who was often the lone source of offensive creation. He proved on several occasions that he had gotten better and was capable of excelling without Embiid.

This ascent from Maxey has made him arguably one of the 25 best players in the NBA. Those heights were not forecasted before the season by the majority of NBA fans, let alone 76ers fans. It's a leap that makes him very worthy of recognition as the Most Improved Player.

However, there’s another contender whose jump was even more surprising — and it has made him the MIP favorite in the eyes of many NBA fans.

Maxey's primary competition for MIP Award is Coby White

Tyrese Maxey is certainly deserving of the Most Improved Player award but he is not the only one. While he represents a case of a star leap that surpassed expectations, another player has the more typical case of reaching new heights out of nowhere.

Chicago Bulls guard Coby White has almost doubled his point-per-game output from a season ago and has kept the Bulls roughly as competitive as they were last season despite Zach LaVine missing all but 25 games. Once seen as just another bench guard, The 24-year-old performed like a high-level starter/fringe star this season while reaching a career-best 37 points in a single game, leveling up as a shooter of tripes and free throws and notching new career-high averages in points, assists and rebounds per game.

Coming into the season, White wasn’t on anyone's radar to have a notable season. He has since taken the spot next to DeMar DeRozan as a leading option on the Bulls. His case, for many, is what the award is about: Recognizing an unheralded player for great improvements. Although White falls into this line of thinking more than Maxey, it doesn’t automatically mean he’s more deserving.

Of course, while the case can be made that Maxey's improvements were more substantial, it's inarguable that White's jump was much more of a surprise. Both players became the second option for their respective teams but White made the leap to that spot from the bench. Maxey was a No. 3 who jumped up one spot in the pecking order. Putting aside the roles, though, the actual production from each candidate's season is rather similar.

Chalking White's MIP case up to how much his points per game increased (a 9.4-point bump) is insufficient. Among a handful of stats prevalent for combo guards, Maxey and White's respective improvements are in similar ballparks when their stats are put on the same scale of minutes. Consider also that White had DeRozan to lean on for roughly his entire season while Maxey had to play without his leading star for months.

Difference in stats from 22-23 to 23-24 (via
Points per 36 minutes+3.1+4.0
Assists per 36 minutes+2.1+0.9
Free throw attempts per 36 minutes+1.4+1.7
Turnovers per 36 minutes+0.2+0.6
True shooting percentage-3.2 percent-0.2 percent

Additionally, White's leap this season has been impressive but his production doesn’t separate itself from past seasons in a more significant way than Maxey's does. Looking at points per 100 possessions, White has been in the mid-20s for much of his career. Plus, his assists per 100 possessions this season aren’t a career-high. Meanwhile, Maxey established himself in the mid-30s in points and above eight in assists for the first time in his career.

The Bulls guard translating his past production to a role as a full-time starter is a feat worthy of genuine praise and deservedly makes him a Most Improved Player Award contender. However, Maxey has reached a level that’s clear-cut above his previous work. It's what past MIP winners, whether being a highly touted youngster, role player on a new team or somewhere in between have done.

Does Tyrese Maxey's Most Improved Player Award case buck convention?

Traditionally, the MIP award has been about a player rising from a relative unknown or role player into a star or high-level player. For example, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Love, and Giannis Antetokunmpo won the award in the season they made their first All-Star game. CJ McCollum and Pascal Siakam started their careers as bench players and then became top options on their respective teams. Lauri Markkanen and Victor Oladipo were traded to new teams and became star-level players themselves on their new teams, which no one at their respective times saw coming.

Then, Ja Morant won the ward in the 2021-22 season. Two years after he was recognized as a notable young player with the Rookie of the Year award, he took home the MIP trophy, zapping an essential element of past recipients of the award: unpredictability.

Morant raised his per-game scoring average from 19.1 to 27.4 and his true shooting percentage from 53.7 to 57.5. He went from the top option on his team to…the top option on his team, but even better. The biggest credit to Morant's case was how his Memphis Grizzlies jumped from the eighth seed to the second seed in the Western Conference with roughly the exact same roster.

This is certainly no criticism of Morant, who obviously had no control over whether he won and obviously wanted to get better with his team on the rise. But Morant's ROTY award displayed the recognition he got for being a future star. For many, Maxey's case for the award is similar to that of Morant: a young star who made a leap that everyone expected to happen.

The criteria for the Most Improved Player award has never been more in question. Is the award meant for the player who makes the biggest leap in his game or the best player who made a sizable leap? In the journey from point A to point B, is it the distance between the points or how far up the furthest point is? Based on how the award has traditionally been voted on, it should be the former.

However, Maxey's candidacy is not like Morant's. It's much closer to that of George, Butler, and Love, where a first-round pick goes from bench player to starter to All-Star. The fact that observers foresaw a leap from Maxey that played-out in reality should be a credit to his case, not a dismissal of it — especially when Maxey 1) became better than anyone anticipated and 2) arguably made a more sizable leap.

Whether that credit will earn him the award over White remains to be seen. But if it does, it shouldn’t be seen as a sign that the MIP award means less. It would be an acknowledgment of an impressive leap to stardom, which is also a critical essence of the award.